We realise that often, becoming a litigant in person is unavoidable. Perhaps you are not eligible for legal aid or simply cannot afford to pay a solicitor. Whatever your reason, this article sets out the pitfalls to avoid if you choose to act for yourself during your divorce.
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What is a litigant in person?
It is an oft quoted remark that “he who represents himself has a fool for a client”. This has been attributed to many people over time, most notably Abraham Lincoln, who, before becoming President of the United States, was a lawyer. Perhaps old Bram was being a little harsh with his assessment of litigants in person. Nevertheless, it can be extremely difficult handling a case that you are both emotionally and financially invested in. Solicitors see cases in the round, they assess its weak and strong points, and are experienced in court procedures. And perhaps most important of all, although a solicitor wants to get the best outcome for their client, they can go home and forget about it until the next day. Not being immersed in a case can and does put things into perspective.
Common pitfalls being a litigant in person
- Preparing extremely lengthy documents which attempt to cover everything without knowing its relevancy to the case or issues at hand. Doing this will only alienate a judge. Drafting succinct documents that set out only ‘relevant’ facts is something solicitors spend a lot of time learning. As my law teacher used to remind me, brevity is the essence of wisdom. I always try to bear this in mind when things are getting a bit War and Peace. Seriously though, lengthy documents can make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to decipher what your case is about, and if you lose the judge this way, you will probably lose your case.
- Raising ‘conduct’ as an issue in divorce financial proceedings. Whilst conduct can be a relevant factor, it is only an issue in ‘exceptional’ circumstances where your ex-spouse’s behaviour is both ‘obvious and gross’. If they’ve had an affair with your boss or gone off with your now ex-best-friend, it will not be deemed as relevant conduct sufficient to affect a financial outcome.
- Alleging procedural irregularities or other bias from the judge. This is a common allegation from litigants in person, particularly when decisions go against them. If you have real reason to believe this has happened, then, of course, you should complain. But if this is a knee-jerk response to a hearing not going your way, you will not help your case by making unfounded allegations.
- Another common allegation for a litigant in person to make is against lawyers for the other party, particularly in relation to perceived fraud or misconduct. Litigants in person often believe there is some sort of legal conspiracy against them, most are unfounded. But if there is a real issue, these can be raised with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
- Improper behaviour in court. When people are represented in court, they are generally restrained from making any comments by their solicitor. Naturally, feelings can run high, particularly in family proceedings, and things may be said that can seriously harm your case. It may sound puerile, but counting to ten really does help.
- Not knowing if there are genuine grounds for appeal. Many litigants in person believe that everyone has a legal right to appeal against any decision of the court, regardless of the merits. This has led to many ill-judged appeals being launched, which can have serious consequences.
- Not knowing when to stop. This tends to be peculiar to family cases, but litigants in person often get locked into a spiral of never-ending litigation, feeling so aggrieved at the way the system has ill-treated them that if they return to court enough times, they will get the outcome they deserve. All that is likely to happen here is that they will be barred from making any further applications for a specific period of time. For prolific offenders, the court can bar them indefinitely.
Do you need family law solicitors for your matter rather than being a litigant in person?
If you are in need of professional legal advice for your family law matter, Wiselaw researches and lists family solicitors from across the UK, from Glasgow, to Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Leicester, Bristol, Southampton, London, and many more. Wiselaw has the right family lawyer for your needs.
Tips for litigants in person
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Make sure all your paperwork is in order and is completed as well as you can. If you can go into court with a well-composed and coherent statement and perhaps a chronology of events, then you will probably have to say less to the judge. You are not a trained court advocate, and minimising what you have to say will probably benefit your case.
- Ensure you give a copy of every document upon which you intend to rely during the case to your ex’s solicitor, or if they do not have one, to your ex themselves. The court will also need a copy of the documents too. This is a very basic rule, and one which many litigants in person flout, whether by accident or design. Believing you can simply pull an evidential rabbit out of the hat TV style will rarely, if ever, work in your favour.
- Accept you will make mistakes. There’s a good reason solicitors spend years training and gaining experience – the law is complicated. A judge will not expect you to get everything right, and they have a duty to the court, along with your ex’s solicitors, to help you through the process. It is also important to keep things in perspective. If you are planning to conduct your own case, read and learn as much as you can. There is a wealth of free information to be found online with only a cursory search.
- Try not to adopt a hostile approach or attitude to your ex’s solicitor. As stated above, they have a duty to help you with court procedure, and if you can get along, at least on a professional level, then the experience will not seem as daunting.
- Stand your ground. For a host of reasons, judges are not keen on litigants in person. This may mean that you have to work harder to get the judge to listen to you. Don’t hesitate to ask the judge to explain anything you don’t understand, or ask them to slow down so you can make a note of what they say.
- Don’t go it alone. If you cannot afford to instruct a direct access barrister, then think about taking a McKenzie Friend (someone who assists you with your case, although they cannot speak on your behalf). However, you should exercise care, as some McKenzie Friends charge, and some of them are on their own crusade and are not child-focussed.
- Finally, check the order. It can be difficult to get an order changed once made, so never leave court without first fully checking the draft order. Also, make a note of any dates when things have to be filed/done by, because court orders can sometimes take a week or so to be sent out.
The information on this website is to be considered a guide and is therefore not legal advice. You use this information with the understanding that Wiselaw does not accept liability for any direct or indirect losses as a result of anyone relying on or acting upon the information on this website. Whilst we endeavour to provide accurate information, Wiselaw does not accept liability for any errors or omissions on this website.